How to Review a Book (Non-Fiction)

BooksI’ve written a couple of book reviews, including one for this blog, and intend to write a few more. In order to write  the best reviews possible, I’ve been doing a little research on how best to review a book.

What Does a Good Book Review Look Like?

A quality review is neither a summary of a whole book, nor is it simply a matter of stating whether or not you think the book was good or bad. It may contain either or even both of these things, but neither is the point of the review.

Rather, a good book review is a tool to help your readers decide whether or not the is worth reading for themselves. Unfortunately, this not a question to answer directly unless you have exceptional knowledge of your readers needs and expectations. The best you can so, then, is review the book in terms of:

  • The author’s stated purpose in writing the book
  • Your own reasons for reading it

Based upon these, you can make an informed guess regarding who would benefit from reading it, what they will find beneficial, and what they might struggle with.

The other important characteristic of your review is that it maintains the reader’s attention. To do so, it needs to be clear, concise, reasonably brief,  well structured, not too dry… in fact, it should possess many of the characteristics of a good book. Above all, a quality review should by pithy, which is obviously more easily said than done.

Finally, a a good book review needs to be based on your reading of the book. This might seem obvious… but there are plenty of reviews on Amazon, for example, where the reviewer has clearly not actually read the book that they’re supposed to be reviewing! Of course, if the book is so bad that you can’t finish it, that is fair enough, but you should at least give a book a fair crack before you slate it. Book reviews impact book sales, and your review has the potential to influence whether or not the writer can feed their family this month! Moreover, even a poor book can represent a labour of love from its author, and writers are often very sensitive about their work. That’s not to say you should pretend a book is good when it isn’t – you owe it to your readers to be honest – but rather that you should give an author a fair hearing before you consign their intellectual offspring to the trash.

How Do I Evaluate a Book?

When evaluating a book, you need to consider how each of its characteristics contributes to its overall effectiveness. I’ve presented a long list of many of these characteristics below. Of course, you won’t write about all these things, but you should at least think about them.

There are several general questions you should ask about each characteristic:

  • Is there anything the author could have improved?
  • Was anything really outstanding?

Note that I’ve organized this list for my ease of reference. It isn’t prioritized in any way, nor is it intended as a guide for organizing the final review. It is here to kick-start your thoughts, nothing more.

The Book’s Identity

The identity of the book provides enough information for the reader of the review to find their own copy:

  • Title
  • Author(s)
  • Edition
  • Publication date
  • Publisher
  • Place of publication
  • ISBN
  • Genre / Field / Subject
  • Is it part of a series?

Things to look out for:
The author’s:

  • Background
  • Training
  • Affiliations
  • Biases

Does the title fit the contents?

The Author’s Purpose

What did the author hope to accomplish? This should be easy to discern from the title, blurb, preface and introduction. If not, check the book’s conclusion.

Can you see why the author chose to write this book rather than another?

Things to consider:

  • Intended readership
  • Point of view
  • Elementary / advanced
  • Technical / general
  • Theoretical / practical
  • Main ideas and themes
  • Key terminology
  • The book’s thesis

Things to look out for:

  • Was it consistent in each of the above?
  • How does it compare? (what was same / different)
    • To other books in the field
    • To any earlier editions
  • Is it a re-working of earlier books?
  • Is it an advert for other products / services?
  • What is the unique contribution of this book?
  • Is the coverage appropriate? Was it superficial or thorough?

The Author’s Conclusions

What are the book’s conclusions, or what proposition is it trying to prove? How do these relate to the writer’s purpose?
Things to look out for:

  • Is anything left
  • Unsolved?
  • Unresolved?
  • Is the conclusion
  • Is the book useful?
  • Are there plenty of examples?
  • Does it suggest things to do?
  • Does it supply guidelines application?

The Author’s Approach

Is the author aiming to:

  • Report information
  • Explain ideas
  • Interpret facts
  • Persuade

Is the author using:

  • Description
    • Involves using word pictures to create vivid images in the reader’s mind.
    • The emphasis on the reader’s senses and imagination
  • Narrative
    • Involves describing a series of events, often chronological.
    • The emphasis is creating an awareness of change or progression
  • Exposition
    • Involves explanation and analysis
    • Emphasis is on clarifying ideas in the reader’s mind
  • Argument
    • Involves the author presenting arguments
    • Emphasis is often on persuasion

Things to look out for:

  • Was the approach appropriate to the author’s purpose?
  • To the subject matter of the book?
  • Was the author consistent?
  • How does it differ from other works?
  • Is is objective?

The Book’s Structure

How is the book divided into:

  • Sections
  • Chapters

What is their:

  • Number
  • Length

These can often be found in a table of contents.
Things to look out for:

  • How well ideas are developed
    • Check the table of contents
  • Does the progression of ideas fit:
    • the author’s thesis?
    • the author’s approach?
  • Which parts are too long / short?
  • What was missing?
  • Which parts were strongest?
  • Is it easy to use as a reference book?
  • Can it be dipped in to?

The Author’s Style

Does the author make effective use of language to convey their ideas?

  • Quality of grammar / spelling / sentence structure
  • Correct use of technical language
  • Long / short sentences
  • Jargon
  • Verbosity
  • Clarity
  • Coherence
  • Fluidity
  • Formal / informal
  • Forcefulness
  • Logical / emotive
  • Use of:
    • Illustrations
    • Anecdotes
    • Quotes

The Book’s Physical Characteristics

What does it look like outside?

  • Format: Paperback / hardback / eBook / Audio
  • Binding
  • Number of pages
  • Size
  • Durability
  • Cover design
  • Spine
  • Blurb
  • Endorsements
  • Price

And inside?

  • Paper quality
  • Print legibility
  • Page layout and use of white space
  • Illustrations / graphs / photos / charts
  • Table of contents
  • Headings
  • Annotations
  • End notes / footnotes – are these useful?
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Is it part of package that includes other media?

  • Pull-outs
  • Maps
  • CDs
  • Related web-sites
  • Additional materials

Things to look out for:
Consider how each of these characteristics contributes to:

  • The book’s readability
  • The book’s suitability for its intended audience
  • Achieving the book’s purpose

A few specifics:

  • Is the index accurate?
  • Are footnotes / endnotes useful? Should they have been part of the main text?

Personal Response

Finally, consider how the book is relevant to you.

  • How does the book relate to you and your personal agenda?
  • What personal experiences you’ve had relate to the subject?
  • How did you respond to author’s opinions?
  • What was / was not convincing?
  • What new knowledge do you have?
  • Have your ideas changed?
  • Has your behaviour changed?
  • What parts of book had special merit?

Hod Do I Write the Review?

A good review is like a story – it has a beginning, middle and end.

The Beginning

The review should have a strong introduction. Start with something that will capture the reader’s attention. You could try one of these:

  • Why are you interested in the book?
  • How does it relate to current news?
  • Why does the subject matter?
  • Why is this book especially notable?
  • What did you expect from the book?
  • A teaser for the rest of the review.

Put enough information in the title / introduction of the review for the reader to identify the book.

The Middle

In this section you’ll provide an overview of the whole book, and a more thorough description of several things that you found particularly notable about it. For each of these, include a description of the area that you’re talking about, and an evaluation. Illustrate your review with appropriate references and quotations.

Remember that a book review is a 3-way relationship between three people: you, the book’s author and your reader. You undoubtedly have your own biases, interests and ideas before you read the book. Be open about these, so your reader knows that you can be trusted, and so that your reader has a basis to evaluate what you write.

Consider referencing other reviews of the book, especially if they came to different conclusions from you: you’re trying to help your readers decide whether the book is useful for them, and a balanced approach will help them to do that.

Following a few simple guidelines will help keep you on track:

  • Make it personal. The review will be more interesting if you explain why the book mattered (or not) to you.
  • Keep it brief: you don’t have to say everything about the book, so stick to your key points.
  • Ignore minor matters, such as one-off typos.
  • Don’t just say that the book is good / bad. Explain who it is good for, and why.

If there is anything that surprised you, make that a focal point of your review.

The Conclusion

Finish with a strong conclusion. This should relate to the points you’ve already made rather than introducing new ideas.

  • Did the book meet your expectations?
  • Who would you recommend it to? Why?

Pay special attention to the author’s own conclusion.

  • Is it convincing?

If possible, relate your conclusion to your introduction as this will give your readers a sense of closure.


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